Beyond High School

Beyond dinosaurs and rocket ships: New Children’s Museum program aims to help neighborhood families

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis held a school fair this fall.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is largest children’s museum in the world, attracting visitors from across the country who shell out as much as $82 for a family of four.

But this gem sits in the midst of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where just one in four adults has a college degree and nearly half of families with children live in poverty.

That’s why museum leaders decided that they needed to do more to help kids close to home, said Anthony Bridgeman, who runs community programs for the museum. Kids in the surrounding neighborhoods already get free admission but now the museum has launched a program called Mid-North Promise that aims to help neighborhood families further their education and achieve their goals.

Among the 33 families currently participating are a man who needed help finding a new school for his grandchildren, a mother who needed a job that would reimburse her college tuition and a woman who needed childcare so she could complete her pharmacy technician training. But the museum is particularly focused on one group: Teens who were part of the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, which provides qualified high school graduates with free tuition to Indiana colleges and universities.

“We have a very transitory neighborhood in general,” Bridgeman said. “I would like to see … more young people from our neighborhood engaged in seeing a future … a big, bright future that those folks say, ‘Hey, you know what, there’s something really good happening here, and I’m going to plant roots and stay in the neighborhood.’ “

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The neighborhoods served by Mid-North Promise.

Thousands of Indiana students have benefited from the lucrative 21st Century Scholars program but some eligible students don’t know about it. Others have struggled to meet application requirements.

The state reported last spring that the vast majority of students in the program were in danger of missing out on scholarships because they were not meeting new requirements, but Mid-North Promise staff are determined to make sure that eligible students in the neighborhoods around the museum are able to get the scholarships they deserve.

Caseworker Tremayne Horne is now working with 26 high schoolers who are eligible for the scholarships, including Stacia and Simone Clemons.

When the Clemons sisters signed up to become 21st Century Scholars in middle school, their mother Dennicka Kendall assumed they were set — stay out of trouble and keep a high GPA, and they would get the scholarship.

But when Horne met with the girls — Stacia is a senior and Simone is a junior at Crispus Attucks High School — he discovered that they were behind on meeting requirements such as personality tests that need to be completed and community service projects that must to be fulfilled.

“A lot of the requirements were kind of sent to me … later,” Kendall said. “I didn’t even know that they had so many requirements.”

Now that they’ve joined Mid-North Promise, Horne has helped both sisters get back on track toward earning the scholarship. He also is working with Stacia Clemons, a senior, on her plans for college and the future, helping her make sense of applications and financial aid deadlines as well helping her think through her decisions about where to apply.

When she and her mother got into an argument because Clemons was unsure what she wants to do for college or a career, it was Horne who she called.

“I was kind of freaking out,” Clemons said. “He made me feel a lot better.”

In addition to helping teens get 21st Century Scholarships, the Mid-North Promise program will also offer $2,500 scholarships for families, Bridgeman said.

The Mid-North Promise is currently funded by grants from the Lumina Foundation and Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and sponsored by Old National Bank. The museum is looking to raise nearly $4.6 million to support the program longterm. That includes $3 million for a scholarship fund and nearly $735,000 to pay for family education and caseworkers like Horne.

The program is modeled on efforts like the Kalamazoo Promise, which offer free college tuition to graduates of Kalamazoo public school. That program has spawned copy cats across the country in cities like Syracuse, New Haven and Detroit.

But while most Promise programs are focused on money for college, the museum is also working with parents to help achieve their goals.

Horne is helping Kendall, the Clemons’ mother, finish her college degree and prepare to buy a house, for example.

“A lot of people come to the program solely focused on their kids and how to basically make a better life for their kids,” Horne said. “For them to be able to sit down and go over their goals and how they want to better themselves, I think has really been a big impact for them.”

finishing high school

Colorado’s graduation rate hits six-year high, with both big spikes and declines in metro Denver

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado’s four-year high school graduation rate reached a six-year high last year, with some metro Denver districts that serve at-risk students showing marked improvement and others taking steps back.

The on-time graduation rate for the class of 2016 was 78.9 percent, according to data released Thursday by the state education department. That’s a 1.6 percentage point jump from the previous year.

The state’s dropout rate also improved, falling by 0.2 percentage points. All told, 584 fewer students dropped out in 2015-16 than in the previous school year.

The state’s graduation gap between students of color and white students also narrowed slightly for the sixth consecutive year. The four-year graduation rate for students of color was 71.9 percent, an increase of 1.7 percentage points from last year. The graduation rate for white students in 2016 was 84.4 percent.

“The news is encouraging for the state and shows the continued dedicated commitment of students, parents, teachers and school staff,” Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “It is motivating that we are moving in the right direction as we all strive to have students graduate prepared for life after high school, whether that is in college or careers.”

Around the metro area, some school districts saw significant increases in their graduation rates.

Mapleton Public Schools, a district serving more than 8,000 students north of Denver, had the largest jump, posting a 64.6 percent on-time graduation in 2016, up from 57.1 percent in 2015.

Aurora, a school district that is struggling to improve before potentially facing state sanctions in another year, also made a significant jump — graduating 65 percent of their students in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2015.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn attributed his district’s gain to its new strategic plan, which requires each student to have a plan to graduate.

“If students take ownerships over their own success, there are higher levels of engagement and higher levels of success,” he said.

High schools in Aurora have also been rethinking how they keep students from dropping out. For example, at Hinkley High, students have the option of enrolling in a computer-based night school.

“I can tell you, there are no tricks,” Munn said, who added the district’s rate has steadily increased 20 points since 2010. “It’s been pushing a large rock up a hill. Not one magical jump.”

The graduation rates in both districts, despite the improvements still lag behind the state average and larger metro school districts like those in Denver and Jefferson counties. Jeffco Public Schools posted a graduation rate of 82.8 percent, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent in 2015. Denver’s graduation rate for 2016 is 67.2 percent, meanwhile, is up from 64.8 percent.

DPS officials celebrated their improved numbers at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a kindergarten through 12th school in southwest Denver that posted a 100 percent on-time graduation rate last year and had zero dropouts. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg hailed it as a “shining example,” a formerly struggling school reborn after being put on turnaround status.

Since the state changed the way it tracks graduation rates eight years ago, DPS’ four-year graduation rate has grown 70 percent, Boasberg said.

The graduation rates at another metro area district, Englewood Public Schools, climbed from 47 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2017. Diana Zakhem, the district’s director of postsecondary and workforce readiness, said the district has been working on improving graduation rates for years.

“It really is a combination of a lot of different things,” Zakhem said. “Focusing on student engagement, relevancy and relationships with them — all of those things have helped and contributed. It’s not just one thing that happens over one school year.”

The work at Englewood schools includes new career and technical courses including one in hospitality and culinary arts, an increase in the number of high school counselors paid for by grants, and work with a nonprofit that has a dedicated staff person tasked with finding students that do drop out to get them back in school.

Two metro area school districts, Sheridan and Westminster saw declines in their graduation rates.

Westminster, a school district that after one last appeal could become the first this year to lose accreditation because of chronic low performance, had a graduation rate of 56.3 percent, down from 59.4 percent in 2015.

Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools said the district is not concerned with the four-year rate. Although just 56.3 percent of students in the district graduated after four years, another 190 students, or 27 percent, are still enrolled in the district.

“The number is not a surprise, in fact it’s what you would expect to see in a true Competency Based System where the goal is to ensure that a high school diploma has real value,” Grenham said of the four-year rate.

“We are pleased with our five- and six-year graduation rates because they show that our students who enter high school behind their peers are staying in school and learning what they need to know,” he said. “As a district, we would have a much higher graduation rate if we let students walk across the stage with a D average, but that would be a disservice to them and our community. Yes, more students would graduate in four years, but they would not be prepared for the future. We are not interested in playing the numbers game.”

The Sheridan School District just south and west of Denver had a 69.1 percent graduation rate, down from 75.9 percent in 2015.

The tiny Sheridan district this year jumped off the state’s accountability clock for low performance. Depending on how it fares 0n other measures, the decline in graduation rates could put the district on the state watch list again.

Pathway to college

For Tennessee high school students, free community college isn’t about the money. It’s about the branding.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Josue Flores is a freshman at Southwest Community College. He credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School.

Josue Flores credits Tennessee’s free community college program for allowing him to continue his education after graduating from Cordova High School last spring, only three years after immigrating to the United States.

But it wasn’t just the money. The state doesn’t actually pay for Flores’ education because federal grants cover his tuition at Southwest Community College in Memphis.

More important has been the straightforward “promise” of the Tennessee Promise scholarship. The program guarantees that Flores can go to college for two years for free if he follows a simple step-by-step checklist.

High-achieving students across income levels still overwhelmingly opt to attend four-year programs. But state education officials and school counselors say Tennessee Promise has energized the conversation around college for many other students.

“Once they hear ‘free,’ they perk up,” says Ellen Houston, a counselor at Nashville’s Glencliff High School. “There are definitely kids who wouldn’t have continued their education (without it).”

Before Tennessee Promise, free college initiatives existed on a much smaller scale, and were typically privately funded. In Tennessee, the seed was planted by a program called Knox Achieves, started in 2008 when Gov. Bill Haslam was mayor of Knoxville. That attracted more philanthropic funding and morphed into tnAchieves, which served students across the state.

Tennessee Promise launched in 2014 and is still too young for conclusive academic studies. But it’s the first statewide program of its kind and already is viewed as an exemplar as more states, recently including New York, move to increase college access. Research on Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise, the nation’s oldest free college program, suggests that the promise of free higher education positively changes the culture in high schools.

Unlike the Kalamazoo program, Tennessee Promise only applies to community and technical colleges. It’s a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that it covers only what federal aid does not, using revenue from the state’s lottery. Of more than 16,000 Tennessee Promise students who graduated last year from high school, 53 percent, including Flores, qualified for Pell grants, which are worth up to $5,082 each year.

There’s no grade cutoff, and the requirements are fairly straightforward. Students must be documented residents of Tennessee. They must meet clear deadlines for attending informational meetings, filling out the federal aid form called the FAFSA, and completing eight hours of community service each year.

The program’s simplicity made it a perfect fit for Flores. When he moved to the United States from El Salvador three years ago, his sole focus was to learn English. Then he started to look at college. But finding a way to pay for it was daunting.

“I started to look for scholarships, and the system was completely different (from El Salvador),” he recalls.

He heard about Tennessee Promise from his classmates. He liked the structure of the scholarship program — and the guarantee of an award if he jumped through all the hoops. “It was a blessing,” he said. “There were definite steps to take so I could definitely get it. This was for sure.”

Because a FAFSA application is required for Tennessee Promise, students who previously might not have known or bothered to complete one are getting it done. That, along with Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship, a last-dollar grant with a GPA requirement, have made Tennessee the No. 1 state in FAFSA completion for two years running.

“Before it was, ‘Hey, fill out this horrible form called the FAFSA. You might get to school for free. Now we can say, if you follow these guidelines, you will get to go for free,” says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

From the beginning, architects of Tennessee Promise knew that messaging would be almost as important as the actual money, according to Krause, who spearheaded the program as part of Haslam’s Drive to 55 college-going initiative.

So far, Krause and other state leaders consider Tennessee Promise a success. The state’s college-going rate among recent high school graduates has jumped 4.6 percentage points since 2014, to 62.5 percent, and retention rates at community colleges have increased, suggesting that students who start college with the program stick with it.

The true test will be if students like Flores are able to get the kinds of good-paying jobs they want.

Flores, for one, is optimistic. He just started his second semester at Southwest and has set his eyes toward obtaining a nursing degree at the University of Memphis. That would get him one step closer to his childhood dream of working in the medical field.

“Nothing is impossible,” he says, “but without (Tennessee Promise) it would have been a lot tougher.”